Arts & Culture

Prairie wildlife on display

EL DORADO — Eyes super-sized and bills agape, a startled flock of mallards and pintails stretch every wing feather wide as they claw for air, drops of water dripping from webbed feet that had just churned waves on a quiet pool.

Beyond that, a flock of prairie chickens, fresh from the snow-frosted Flint Hills, sails over an ancient, jagged fence toward a dinner at a harvested crop field.

The scenes aren't deep in the Kansas countryside. They are in the Coutts Memorial Museum of art in El Dorado, part of a display honoring M. Wayne Willis, a Kansan who lived for such settings for nearly 80 years and shared them via brush, canvas and carving knife for nearly 50.

Willis was born in 1913 in eastern Kansas and died in 1991 in Wichita.

For the last half of the last century, Willis was one of America's top wildlife artists.

"The idea is to introduce his art to new generations," said Toni Willis-Jackman, his daughter. "We'd hoped to get maybe a dozen of his works. We ended up with about 40 major oils. We also have some early watercolors and hand-carvings."

Willis-Jackman and her sister, Robyn Willis, had no problems finding owners willing to loan artworks. Word of mouth in the local sporting and art worlds did it.

"Everybody became so generous when they found out we were wanting to keep Wayne's name and work alive," Willis-Jackman said. "They're loaning us some very valuable pieces that mean a great deal to them."

Innes Phillips of Wichita loaned a collection of hand-carved waterfowl his father bought from Willis in the late 1940s.

At the time, the artist was not long from hard times in World War II and beginning a 22-year career as a draftsman at Boeing, creating wildlife artwork on the side.

The quality that made Willis' works special was evident early on.

"He had a real sense of birds in flight, great details," Phillips said. "He really understood everything about things like the ducks, the quail, the turkeys. He was a hell of a outdoorsman. That was obvious."

Many say Willis' eye for the surroundings added greatly to his works.

"One of his trademarks was there was always something central to the picture, like an old barn, old house or a sycamore tree," said Mike Hayden, who was a legislator when he developed a friendship with Willis that lasted through his governorship and beyond.

"There was always something there that made his paintings look so realistic. Even as much as he was outdoors, he still kept looking for details. He was always taking pictures to study. If he was painting birds, his studio was full of bird wings. He wanted every feather perfect."

Most of Willis' early works were for sportsmen wanting a painting of their favored bird dog or a hunting scene from the family ranch.

Willis' career gained national attention when he retired early from Boeing in 1971 and started marketing prints of his work.

Donating prints to conservation groups helped showcase his skills and raise money for groups like Ducks Unlimited.

From 1980-86, sales of his donated artwork brought more than $1 million for Ducks Unlimited wetlands conservation projects.

Willis-Jackman is sure the museum display will attract many who enjoyed time afield with Willis or collected his artwork.

Old friends think those unfamiliar with Willis' works will find the displays enjoyable.

"Even people who really don't care that much about wildlife art have to appreciate his work," Phillips said. "The man was just plain an awfully good artist."

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